A Stroll With William James and Jacques Barzun

“There are books…which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences.” – Emerson

With both excitement and regret, tonight I finished reading the final pages of Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (Harper & Row, 1983).

Excitement, because this is easily the finest book I have read in years…and I tend to read a lot of books, almost all of them fine to excellent. Excitement also, because reading it has strengthened my longstanding – but so far unrealized – resolve to seek out more books (ideally, all of them!) written by and about William James.

The Jameses and their circle have long seemed to me to be the closest American counterpart of England’s Bloomsbury Group – whose books (and books about) I have managed to read many of. For example, Henry James’ novels – so far unread by me, although I’ve read not one but two novels about him – have been hovering around the middle of my “Books to Read” for years, and I dimly remember being impressed by the breadth of  his brother William’s genius when I first heard of him, back in my introductory college psychology courses. And this very afternoon, what book did some kind (and apparently kindred!) soul donate to my library but The Death and Letters of Alice James?

Barzun died last year at age 104; my learning about his death (and the memory of having, with pleasure, at some distant point in the past read – yea, even purchased –  Barzun’s The Modern Researcher) was the trigger for my searching out this book of his. Actually, when I began my search for a Barzun book last fall, any of them would have done:  A Stroll merely happened to be the first one I got hold of. Talk about a lucky choice! Barzun  was a lifelong admirer of James’ accomplishments, and his affection for James radiates from every page of this remarkably humane, wide-ranging, and exquisitely written tribute.

My regret at having finished A Stroll has to do with my realizing that, at age 64, there’s simply not enough time for me to read everything written by or about William James. (For starters, I want to track down whatever remarks were recorded at or about his funeral, and to find and enjoy James’ collected letters.) Added to the too-many-books-too-little-time problem is the additional sad fact that there is also not sufficient time to read all the rest of Barzun’s books! (He wrote several dozen, and if A Stroll is exemplary of his extraordinarily engaging writing style, every last one of them would be well worth reading. )

What I can do, however, I will do, and immediately. I am ordering my own copy of A Stroll with William James, so I can read it again – and so I can methodically scrutinize the citiations in Barzun’s numerous and intriguing footnotes. Also, as a particular treat for myself, the first book I plan to read after I retire next month will be another Barzun tome, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (Harper, 2001)I look forward to enjoying every one of its undoubtedly riveting 912 pages.

Although, like most readers, I could make a list of my favorite writers, there have been only a few literary rabbit-holes I’ve fallen into over the course of my reading life. My first Great Overwhelmingment was my high school era obsession with Thomas Wolfe. Decades later came a fortuitous discovery of Lawrence Durell’s novels (and nonfiction), and, even later, a mania for collecting all of Frederick Buechner’s nonfiction works. Soon thereafter came the Era of Reading All Things Oscar Wilde, followed by (or was it preceded by?) my still-ongoing passion for the lives and works of the Bloomsberries.

My plans to – with some trepidation – immerse myself, post-retirement, in the novels of, first, Henry James, and then on to the imagined pinnacle of Proust will now have to wait a later turn. For now and for some time into the future, for Calvin’s reading it’s got to be more William James and/or Jacques Barzun. (Neither William nor Jacques wrote novels, although they are such fine prose stylists that they might have tried their hands at it: reading either of them is every bit as pleasurable as reading a well-wrought novel.)

Somehow I feel, with this rediscovery of both James (William, I mean) and Barzun, my reading life has taken an unexpected and radically enriching turn. The beliefs and values and writing styles of both these men somehow speak directly to so many of my longstanding personal preoccupations. Dismayed at how much more of their work I’ve yet to read, I feel immensely lucky that each of them wrote so much for me to read! Which reminds me of another bookish quotation:

“Literature can shake our lives to the core. Our life can turn around corners by simply reading words on a page….Literature remains the only medium that gets directly inside our interior life.” – John Barth